• Graham Eason

Jaguar XJS Buyers Guide

Updated: Nov 2, 2019

It was in production for 21 years and comfortably outsold the E Type it replaced. Yet the XJS has for many years been seen as the ugly duckling of Jaguar's illustrious model history. However, times are changing and this once oft-overlooked GT is now attracting the love it deserves.

At Classic Fixers we've worked on many XJS, from regular servicing to full restorations. This is our guide to the models and the main issues to watch out for. It's impossible to provide a full list here so if you're in the market for a XJS, feel free to call us on 01527 893733 or email info@greatescapecars.co.uk for an informal chat.

A New E Type?

When Jaguar unveiled the XJS in 1975 the waiting media and prospective GT car buyers took a collective intake of breath. But not in a good way. In place of the E Type's achingly beautiful lines here was a long, low coupe seemingly designed by two different people who met for the first time when the two halves of their design were stuck together. The design was actually masterminded by Malcolm Sayer and William Lyons, who were responsible for the E Type. But in place of that car's purity of line there seemed to be endless styling compromises and disagreements, from the in-vogue flying buttresses at the back - stolen from the Ferrari Dino - to the trapezoid headlamps.

The XJS' biggest problem is that it wasn't an E Type.

It was never meant to be. The E Type's failing was that it was a GT car masquerading as a sports car. Where the Porsche 911 was focussed and handled brilliantly, the E Type was much softer. Jaguar tried to fix this by making the later cars longer and even softer, but it was always a compromise. The XJS aimed to fix this - a focussed GT car that was spacious, comfortable, luxurious and fast.

And the XJS was all those things. Plus by being based on a shortened version of the XJ saloon car platform it had superlative ride and handling. And was cheap to produce compared to the E Type.

Despite all that, those looks plus its 5.3 litre V12 launched in the tailwinds of a fuel crisis. and an interior that was pretty downmarket for an upmarket car, conspired to hammer sales.

Constant Evolution

The story of the XJS is a very British one of evolution in the face of limited budgets. The original XJS, known as the 'pre-HE' model, came very close to being cannedin the late 1970s. These cars are easily identified by their black 'Federal' bumpers, all-plastic interiors (n no timber in sight) and 'Kent' style GKN alloy wheels.

John Egan, who took over at Jaguar in 1980, saved the XJS. Sales were down to a trickle and it had a wretched reputation for rust and unreliability. Egan decided to save it, reasoning that it could help the firm gain sales in its key American market. And so the 'HE' Jaguar was launched. The nomenclature stood for 'High Efficiency' and reflected the new high compression cylinder heads developed for the V12. Although the V12 remained thirsty, this innovation did enough - on a limited budget - to keep the big engine viable. Alongside significant improvements in quality, Jaguar also made over the XJS, adding chrome bumpers on the outside and wood on the inside.

The XJS also gained Jaguar's new 3.6 litre AJ6 engine, which was available with a manual gearbox to differentiate it from the more cruisy V12. A new 'cabriolet' model came along too, a pseudo-convertible with a Triumph Stag-style T-bar roof.

These changes breathed new life into the XJS, making it prettier and more attractive to a wider audience. Buoyed by this success, Jaguar launched a full convertible in 1987, a move that significantly broadened the car's appeal, particularly in the USA.

All of these improvements were really aimed at kicking the can along the road until Jaguar could launch a new mode. Because behind the scenes the firm was developing two replacements, a coupe and a convertible. These models got very, very close to production until the day Jaguar was bought by Ford in 1990.

Ford shelved the new cars due to lack of funding and decided to give the XJS yet another lease of life. The revised model, launched in 1991, was the most significant overhaul of the 16 year old design since its launch. The styling was revamped, with a new boot and side window profiles, and the car gained a bonnet bulge and plastic colour-coded bumpers. What sounds on the face of it like putting lipstick on a pig was in fact a really well resolved update of an old design. Although the interior was - sadly - hardly changed, the car gained a new 4 litre version of the excellent AJ6 engine alongside the venerable V12.

The final XJS cars were produced in 1996. The last 'Celebration' specification heralding the end of an era. Although the XJS' replacement, the XK8 - as well as the Aston Martin DB7 - relied heavily on XJS running gear.

During production Jaguar offered a few 'specials' including a limited run of cars with a TWR body kit. Final cars were offered with a 6 litre V12 engine. A 6 litre conversion was also offered by Lister.

What to watch out for: Bodywork

The XJS may have become better built over its 21 years, but quality was never very good, principally because the factory didn't change. Mechanically the XJS is fairly robust, which makes rust its biggest problem. Anyone buying a XJS should pay particular attention to the bodywork first - if that is in order, then consider the mechanicals and electrics.

Although all XJS' rot, the later the car the better the protection. Although the final cars were galvanised, this is by no means a guarantee that they will be rot free.

Common weakness are the jacking points, sills and floorpans. The seatbelt mounting points are prone to rot because poor design creates a water trap. The body rots at the base of the front and rear wheelarches. Take care to check the condition of the sills, which rot where they meet the arches. Later cars tend to leak around the screen - check the carpets for water ingress.

Doors also rot out due to poor or blocked drainage.

If the car is not visibly rotten, look carefully for signs of repair or bodging. Until recently the XJS was cheap to buy - which usually means owners lack the funds to fix them properly. Where you might expect metal you'll likely find filler. The junction of wheelarch and sill should have a seam line - if this is missing or incomplete, suspect bodging with filler.

The car's low price can also mean cheap resprays. Look carefully at the paint - what may be shiny now might not be in a few months time.

On convertibles check the electric roof operation and the fabric's condition. The mechanism is generally robust and reliable, but expect to pay around £1,500 if the roof needs to be replaced.

What to watch out for: Mechanicals

The XJS has an undeserved reputation for unreliability. In reality, only the early cars suffered problems. Later HE V12 and AJ6 cars are, if not bulletproof, certainly as reliable as anything else of the era. But service history is crucial, particularly on the V12 which is susceptible to head gasket failure if the correct antifreeze coolant mix is not maintained.

On the V12 check that all 12 spark plugs are replaced when the car is serviced - the engine bay is very tight and not all the plugs are easy to reach. The 5.3 engine should be nearly silent - it is as smooth as its reputation suggests. Don't rely on the car's oil pressure gauge which is notoriously unreliable.

The AJ6 engines are very strong and good for 150,000 miles or more without significant expense. The main issues are head gasket failure on low mileage cars and timing chain rattles on high mileage cars.

Most XJS' are fitted with a 3 speed or - in later cars - 4 speed gearbox. Neither are the greatest marriage of box and motor but both are durable and generally trouble-free. They should shift smoothly and the fluid should run clear. Manual boxes are rare but desirable - check for the usual issues of smooth change and clutch operation.

What to watch out for: Running Gear

The XJS is essentially a short wheelbase XJ saloon so most of the running gear is robust and relatively inexpensive to replace with good parts supply. But it is a heavy car so check that the car sits level - worn cars will sag at the back - and that the car rides very, very smoothly. A well sorted XJS will genuinely feel like a magic carpet.

The top inner bushes on the front wishbones tend to wear out every 50,000 miles. Check for uneven tyre wear as the tell-tale that the bushes need replaced.

All XJS have inboard rear brakes. Replacing them involves lowering the rear subframe of the car, a complex job that is about a day's work. The handbrake shoes can burn out very easily, not helped by the antiquated handbrake lever beside the driver's seat - it is very easy to drive a XJS with the handbrake on. Driving it only 100m will burn out the brakes. Check the handbrake works effectively before buying.

What to watch out for: Interior

The XJS interior barely changed from launch to demise, gaining wood along the way, different seats and updated switches. The switchgear is generally reliable, although wing mirror remote operation is particularly recalcitrant.

The interior quality from early to late cars was never very good and consequently trim tends to wear quickly. The wood and leather is particularly prone to deteriorate and is costly to replace - expect to pay around £350 for a set of wood veneers (which then need fitted).

Jaguar included a very high specification as standard with features like cruise control and a trip computer. Later cars are improved but no Jaguar of the 80s and 90s ever had reliable electrics so if these work treat it as a bonus rather than essential.

Which one to buy?

Unlike many of its contemporaries, the XJS is very easy to live with and can easily be used daily. For most buyers the decision about which car comes down to preferences of engine, body style and age.

Later cars fitted with the 6 cylinder engine are reasonably economical. The improved quality and liveability of these cars - such as better ventilation - mean they are becoming particularly sought after. But don't overlook the V12 - this was the first mass production V12 engine and is possibly one of the greatest motors ever made. It may be no quicker than the 6 cylinder and not even that much smoother, but there is something uniquely appealing about knowing 12 cylinders are beavering away to push the big Jag forward.

The full convertible is the XJS currently winning the money, as punters seek out a weekend car that delivers a real sense of occasion. You'll pay around three times the price of a coupe for a good convertible. These cars are lovely drop top cruisers but they do suffer the usual convertible foibles of scuttle shake. It is worth considering the coupe, which delivers a purer XJS experience without the wobble, or the rare XJ-SC cabriolet.

Your decision on early, middle or late cars will probably be dictated by your choices about body style and engine. But if your field is still open, then it will come down to aesthetics and reliability. Early cars are becoming extremely rare and therefore sought after, but unless you are a purist they are best avoided. They're thirsty and rust prone. Mid-period cars offer 3.6 or V12 engines with much-improved aesthetics and build quality while the 1990s cars add updated aesthetics and another step forward in quality.

What should I pay?

The XJS is only just coming out of the doldrums - a few years ago you could pick up a low mileage runner for under £2,000. But they are still very good value and there are many around. Unfortunately, plentiful supply does not always translate into good choice - the XJS has been a cheap classic for so long that there are many shoddy cars out there.

Prices are mainly determined by body style and condition - engine choice tends to make little difference, except with the rare 3.6 cylinder cars which are always the cheapest XJS models.

Early cars are difficult to price and tend to attract widely varying sums based purely on their condition. 80s and 90s coupes start at a few hundred pounds for a project, but from around £5,000 for a MOT'd car with reasonable mileage. Convertibles are now £10,000 or more, with only high mileage examples falling below five figures. The final Celebration models command the highest prices - up to £25,000. Concours, low mileage cars top £30,000.

Whichever car you choose, look for continuous service history and check the previous MOTs - a history of fails and advisories means you should walk away. Don't be put off by high miles but check bodywork and interior condition carefully. Be particularly wary of bodged repairs - know how to spot them and walk away when you do.

We have a lot of experience maintaining, servicing and restoring XJS Jaguars. If you're considering buying one or already own one, feel free to call us for a chat on 01527 893733 or email us at info@greatescapecars.co.uk.

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